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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 16 August, 2018
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Leinster look to complete historic double against ever-dangerous Scarlets

The Welsh region have focused on bringing far more physicality to bear this time around.

“PHYSICALITY IS A big word in rugby, isn’t it?”

So says Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac when he’s asked what lessons the Scarlets learned from their 38-16 defeat to Leinster in the Champions Cup semi-finals five weeks ago.

The Welsh region are in little doubt about what went wrong back in April and ahead of today’s Guinness Pro14 final [KO 6pm, TG4/Sky Sports], in which the Scarlets are defending their title, physicality has been the clear focus.

Leinster players celebrate Jonathan Sexton's try Leinster took Scarlets apart in April. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“They got the better of us on that particular day,” says Pivac. “They were superb in the aspects of the body height and the levels of aggression they brought.

“The channels they ran down very close, they hit the gainline and got very quick ball. There was no separation from their ball-carriers and support players and it was very hard to get the ball off them. They’d done their homework and I thought played very well.”

Since that chastening day in Dublin, the Scarlets have hammered the Cheetahs and shown their class in last weekend’s Pro14 semi-final win against Glasgow.

That victory at Scotstoun looked far more like the Scarlets that swept to the Pro12 trophy last year, when they blasted past Leinster in the semi-final along the way.

“We played into their hands if you wind back the clock to that semi-final last year,” says Leinster boss Leo Cullen. “Watching that Glasgow semi-final I thought, ‘Whoa, that looks like something that happened to us in the past!’

“It was a mirror image almost; the first three quick tries and 21 points. Trying to chase the game against that kind of defence is tough, and how do you try and go about doing that? It was a stark reminder.”

Cullen probably welcomed such a sharp performance from Scarlets last weekend as he and Stuart Lancaster looked to ensure clarity of thought in the Leinster camp with the opportunity for a historic Pro14/Champions Cup double on the line today.

Being able to name captain Isa Nacewa – who insists this game is not about him as he gets set to retire – playmaker Johnny Sexton and chief destroyer Dan Leavy in his starting XV after injury concerns earlier in the week was a relief for Cullen.

Indeed, the condition of his squad ahead of this final is rather remarkable.

A view of the Guinness Pro14 trophy in the dressing room with the Leinster and Scarlets jerseys The Pro14 trophy at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Some players, Nacewa included, are carrying heavy end-of-season knocks but apart from missing Sean O’Brien, Fergus McFadden, Cathal Marsh and Josh van der Flier to impact-related injuries, but Cullen had an extremely strong hand to choose from.

Cullen and captain Nacewa both paid credit to the backroom team, led by head of athletic performance, Charlie Higgins, and head physiotherapist, Garreth Farrell, for their part in this superb season.

“What Charlie and Garreth do behind the scenes is phenomenal,” says Nacewa, “the way they manage us old heads and then the young guys as well. As an addition to this club, the impact of Charlie Higgins has been immediate.”

Their good management has allowed Leinster to use 55 players in this competition and, as ever, the men on the pitch will have all of the others in mind as they seek a second trophy.

While they dismantled Scarlets last time out, there will be little complacency from Leinster.

The Welsh side have lost number eight John Barclay to injury, but the return of Leigh Halfpenny is a boost, Pivac pointing out that the fullback has “averaged around 18 points a game this season.”

Perhaps as importantly, the in-form Rhys Patchell is at out-half this time around, where Pivac hopes he can provide good quality possession for an exciting backline that has been improved by the recent return from injury of Kiwi wing Johnny McNicholl, who lines up opposite Leinster’s excitement machine, James Lowe.

“Johnny brings a lot on attack,” says Pivac. “He’s got good footwork and he’s got a good fend, which you saw against Glasgow last week, and he’s full of energy.

“He can run all day long, so he’s going to bring a lot to our attack, hopefully, but again it starts where we’ve got to get ball, get front-foot ball and give these guys an opportunity.”

Scott Fardy and Tadhg Beirne Tadhg Beirne is at number eight for his final Scarlets appearance. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The absence of Barclay has seen Tadhg Beirne shift into the number eight shirt for what will be his final appearance for the Scarlets before heading to Australia with Ireland and then joining Munster next season.

Pivac has picked Steve Cummins and Lewis Rawlins as his locks, with Cullen suggesting that might be about “beefing up their second row a bit more as well, a slightly heavier pack potentially.” The Scarlets insist that isn’t the case.

“John Barclay’s ruptured Achilles probably forced that call; he would have played otherwise,” says Pivac.

“Tadhg has played there before for us against Toulon and in the Pro14. He is versatile, he has played six and in the second row for us.

“There is not a lot of change for us in the two positions, not much in the lineout changes for us. It was an easy transition for him really.”

Beirne’s turnover threat, alongside that of openside James Davies, will be a key focus for Leinster again as they look to limit the Scarlets’ opportunities to strike on the counter-attack.

Leinster’s own team is littered with Grand Slam-winning quality, with Rob Kearney returning to provide solidity at fullback in a back three completed by Lowe and Jordan Larmour.

Centres Garry Ringrose and Nacewa are all class, while Sexton and Luke McGrath should provide confident direction of their play.

James Lowe James Lowe should provide more excitement. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The pack was difficult to pick for Cullen, but the grunt Leinster’s forwards have given all season could be the key difference again.

The Scarlets want to play their scintillating attacking style this time around, but if they don’t front up they know it will be another miserable day at the Aviva.

“Hopefully, we can spread the ball a little bit more than last time,” says captain Ken Owens. “Obviously, we got taken aback by the physicality that day, they won that battle.

“When we did get the ball we were a little rabbit-in-the-headlights, forcing it and trying to score off passes and offloads that weren’t on.

“I think it’s going to be about the battle of the gainline and we have to get some front-foot ball for our backs to try and get into the wide channels and run at Leinster because we didn’t provide that last time.”

Leinster:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Jordan Larmour
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Isa Nacewa (captain)
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Luke McGrath

1. Cian Healy
2. Sean Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Dan Leavy
8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

16. James Tracy
17. Jack McGrath
18. Andrew Porter
19. Scott Fardy
20. Jordi Murphy
21. Nick McCarthy
22. Joey Carbery
23. Rory O’Loughlin

Scarlets:

15. Leigh Halfpenny
14. Johnny McNicholl
13. Scott Williams
12. Hadleigh Parkes
11. Steff Evans
10. Rhys Patchell
9. Gareth Davies

1. Rob Evans
2. Ken Owens (captain)
3. Samson Lee
4. Lewis Rawlins
5. Steve Cummins
6. Aaron Shingler
7. James Davies
8. Tadhg Beirne

Replacements:

16. Ryan Elias
17. Wyn Jones
18. Werner Kruger
19. David Bulbring
20. Will Boyde
21. Jonathan Evans
22. Dan Jones
23. Tom Prydie

Referee: Stuart Berry [SARU].

- This article was updated at 8.39am to correct ‘Robbie Henshaw’ to ‘Nacewa’.

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Murray Kinsella

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